House of Representatives

Customs Legislation Amendment (Criminal Sanctions and Other Measures) Bill 1999

Second Reading Speech

Williams, Daryl, MP (Tangney, Attorney-General, LP, Government)

-I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

Shielding the community from injury and protecting children from exploitation are two essential responsibilities of a just society. While each member of society should uphold public safety and prevent children from harm, governments and parliaments have a unique role in establishing laws which can ensure the protection of the community and deter crime and antisocial behaviour.

Last year the Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator Vanstone, launched a landmark report that explored several causes of crime in young lives, and suggested some pathways to prevention. The government is continuing to support this important research, which emphasises the need to provide stable and safe environments to nurture the young people who will contribute so much to Australia's future.

Prevention of harm is crucial. Deterrents for those who would cause damage to our community are equally vital.

This bill will provide for increased penalties for a range of import and export offences under the Customs Act 1901.

The bill lifts the maximum civil penalty for non-narcotic offences from $50,000 to $100,000 and, at the same time, creates new criminal non-narcotic offences with custodial sentences.

There is a wide range of goods under the Customs (Prohibited Imports) and (Prohibited Exports) Regulations. They extend from pit bull terriers to goods depicting the Anzac symbol, from human tissues to nuclear weapons. There is a myriad of products and substances that have built up in the regulations over many years-some of the rationale for their inclusion appears lost in the mists of time. Dangerous goods are not welcome in Australia at any time, particularly in the lead-up to the Olympics, and we need to send that clear signal now.

It has become clear that the penalty and offence provisions are no longer appropriate-neither for the diverse range of goods, nor in terms of current sentencing standards. For example, penalty rates set in 1982 can no longer reflect community expectations in all areas. The Australian Law Reform Commission drew similar conclusions in its 1992 report to government on these offences.

The government has decided to take action to address this anomaly by strengthening the civil penalties and introducing criminal penalties for import/export offences for the first time.

The new civil penalty maximum of $100,000 will apply to all prohibited import and prohibited export offences. It is clear, however, that some offences by their nature, or the circumstances that led to the offence, require more serious deterrents. Serious offences involving, for example, prescribed quantities of precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of narcotic and psychotropic drugs will carry a maximum penalty of $100,000 and will also allow courts to impose a sentence of up to five years imprisonment. The same penalty will be applied to offences involving prescribed levels of substances that illicitly enhance performance in sport.

More serious offences, such as those involving weapons or child pornography, will attract a penalty of $250,000 and/or 10 years imprisonment. The Commonwealth's prosecution policy, implemented by the Director of Public Prosecutions, will form the basis of all decisions for the new criminal offences.

The details of goods to which the new offences will apply will be specified in schedules to the regulations, where prohibited goods are currently listed.

By any standard, these are serious penalties to address serious offences.

The bill also removes the statutory limitations imposed on lower-level courts when they determine appropriate penalties for prohibited import and export offences.

While the maximum penalty level is $50,000, cases tried in magistrates courts are currently limited to a $5,000 penalty. District and county court cases prosecuted by the Commonwealth are limited to a penalty of $20,000-amounts above that level are `written off'.

This bill provides that the new offences will not have any Commonwealth imposed court limits-minimum or maximum-and be subject to the normal ceilings in each jurisdiction.

This will effectively provide courts with capacity to impose higher penalties-a second string to the bow in terms of the Commonwealth strengthening penalties.

These amendments demonstrate the government's continuing commitment to the approaches it has adopted under the National Firearms Agreement, the Tough on Drugs and Tough on Drugs in Sport strategies. They do not represent a complete answer to drugs and weapons problems, but do fulfil an important element of community protection policies-the need to signal our abhorrence for offences that damage people and property or have the potential to cause severe harm.

The government is concerned that the new monetary penalties for non-narcotic offences not detract from deterrents that recognise the very serious damage that can be wrought on our community by narcotic drugs. As a result, the bill proposes that existing penalties in relation to narcotic drugs be increased:

from $4,000 to $250,000 for cannabis trafficking,
from $100,000 to $500,000 for narcotics other than cannabis; and
by introducing a new monetary penalty in the Customs Act for commercial trafficking of narcotics-$750,000.

Other measures provided for under the bill include:

extension of the use of technology in external personal searches;
clarification of Customs' power to open international mail articles;
the same arrest powers for the new offences as currently exist;
extension of the time limit for Customs to retain evidential material and/or seized goods, from 60 to 180 days;
improved arrangements for the disposal of abandoned goods.

OtherThis bill introduces two new elements in the area of external search-use of technology and videotaping of those searches. External search involves the removal of articles of clothing.

OtherThe government recognises that personal searches are the subject of some concern within the community. Customs currently has strict operating procedures that are designed to reflect a reasonable balance between preserving a person's dignity and liberty and the protection of the community as a whole.

OtherWe need to be vigilant in finding new ways of dealing with this sensitive area.

OtherIn view of the community's concerns, the government has been exploring the use of emerging technologies that could be used in personal search procedures-for example, body scan x-ray, particle detectors, thermal imaging and swabbing kits. Following an expert examination of the technology, the government hag decided to include a provision in this bill to allow new technology to be used as an alternative to removing articles of clothing.

OtherThe use of body scan x-ray in external searches meets the National Health and Medical Research Council's safety standard for cabinet x-ray equipment.

OtherPeople whom Customs selects for external search may be offered an option to be examined with technology. If they opt to be examined this way, they will be advised of the risks, if any. Customs will not direct any person to undertake an examination using technology.

OtherEven if technology is used, if prohibited goods are found the person may still be asked to remove clothing to locate the items. The amendments will provide that a Customs officer or police officer may take a photo of the prohibited goods on the person.

Under the proposed amendment, Customs will also need to advise the person that an external search may be videotaped. The person will be entitled to a copy of the videotape. There are prescribed arrangements for limited retention, and destruction of photos and videotapes.

I now turn to the proposed amendment in relation to the opening of international mail. When cargo is imported into Australia-including consignments by courier-Customs has the power to open packages and examine goods for drugs or other prohibited items.

The Australian Postal Corporation Act 1989 requires that an Australia Post employee open an article of mail for examination by Customs. This limitation restricts Customs's ability to examine mail articles covertly, which is an important element in the success of a controlled delivery of illicit drugs imported into Australia. The amendments will enable Customs to open and examine a mail article reasonably believed to carry illicit drugs and to deal with any prohibited goods found.

The bill contains additional technical amendments relating to arrest powers, disposal of abandoned goods, and extension of time for Customs to retain evidential material or seized goods.

The bill also allows for the appointment or reappointment of the Chief Executive Officer of Customs for periods up to five years. The current provision in the act specifies an appointment of five years, and the bill allows some flexibility to match the needs of individual appointments.

Laws that enhance the integrity of our borders must be supported by suitable powers for enforcement agencies to make them fully effective, and adequate deterrents to reduce the incidence of offences. The measures I have outlined in the bill today go some way towards those objectives. They complement the role of each member within our community to build a safer and more harmonious country and to let visitors know that we value a peaceful world that protects generations to come.

I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum to the bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr Horne) adjourned.

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